A love song to languages


Two years ago, at a camping site in France, I wrote a song. In English, which was actually a first for me. I’d just written a whole book in English, but all my lyrics so far had been in Dutch (or occasionally Limburgish).

In autumn, I recorded it in Leon Coolegem’s PlayOn Studio. And then – nothing. The song sat on my laptop, gathering digital dust. Until I thought of (and developed the skills for)  making a video.

If you like it, do not hesitate to share it on social media.

English – a public health hazard?

Schermafdruk 2020-05-30 10.24.28Might the incidence of Covid-19 in this place or that depend to some degree on the main language spoken there? A reader from Italy asked me this a few days ago. Being a polyglot, he had first come up with the idea himself; it was then reinforced by a Japanese video that has been making the rounds. This shows how the English aspirated /p/ sound causes an eruption of breath, potentially sending loads of viruses into the air in front of the speaker. So are some languages, including English, more conducive to infection than others?

Apparently, my correspondent is not the only one who’s been wondering about this. In John McWhorter’s most recent Lexicon Valley podcast, he addresses the same issue in response to questions from listeners.

Interestingly, even though John and I agree on the answer – which is, roughly, ‘no’ –, we approach the issue very differently. He points out that while, yes, Japan has been hit much less by the pandemic than the US and the UK, the pattern elsewhere in the world is not what you would expect on the basis of these linguistic differences. Spain has been severely affected, even though Spanish pronunciation doesn’t have any characteristics one would expect in a ‘contagious’ language. And in the Middle East, Iran has been an epicentre of Covid-19 while Iraq hasn’t, even though Iraqi Arabic would appear to be a much more effective spreader of viruses, given its inventory of phonemes.

My take on the question was as follows: ‘These linguistic differences might conceivably play a minor role. However, languages and the cultures in which they are spoken differ in many respects. Even if we only look at personal communication, I think there are differences in: typical loudness; typical amount of speech; typical physical distance between speakers; and typical frequency of touching each other.

And that’s without mentioning other differences between societies, for instance in time spent outdoors (which is safer) versus indoors (riskier), in average health, in willingness to heed governmental advice, in hand-washing habits, in availability of sanitation, in numbers of foreign visitors, in climate, in use of public transport, and so on and so forth.’

Of course I hope that all of you will stay healthy. But I think you can safely continue to speak English, if that’s what you do. No need to learn Japanese.

A stream of Cape Week’s End videos, and more to come

schermafdruk introI’ve recently been posting a lot of Cape Week’s End videos, on a wide variety of language-related subjects. And while they’re mostly in Dutch, I add English subtitles whenever I believe the subject to be of some interest to international viewers.

(I always subtitle the original words, so if you ever studied Dutch or if you’re fluent in German or Afrikaans, you can probably figure out most of what I’m saying – and improve your language skills in the process!)

What I don’t do is consistently advertise the videos here on languagewriter.com. If you want to get notified of the newest Cape Week’s End episode, I recommend that you either subscribe to my YouTube channel  or like & follow my professional Facebook page, which tends to be bilingual. Another option is subscribing to my Dutch blog (fill in your email address at the top of the right-hand menu and confirm by clicking on the button). At the moment, nearly all new blog entries are videos.

Here are a few recent videos:
* Basque words in Iceland and Canada, based on an interview with Siru Laine.
* Dutch spelling and its unique trick (and English could do worse than steal it)
* A sneak preview from my next book, The Dutchionary.

If you want to indulge yourself by binge-watching my whole back catalogue of videos spoken or subtitled in English, pour yourself a drink and click here for a full list. At the time of writing, it offers 11 items, ranging from a 99-second interview to a 40-minute presentation. And should you be into the Nordics: there’s one video with Norwegian subtitles.


Welcome back to Indo-Europe

PoolsIt’s happened again. In spite of good resolutions, and before even making a full recovery from the previous bout, I’ve contracted a new language.

For over two years, I suffered from Vietnamese. That was for – my idea of – a good cause: the writing of a book, Babel. The experience was instructive and fascinating, but not rewarding in any practical sense. In reading, I never got beyond picture books for toddlers. My chats in Vietnamese were few, and it’s probably an overstatement to call them chats – or Vietnamese. Early last year, I beat the virus and began my recovery.

A few months later, the Polish publisher of Babel invited me to Warsaw and Cracow for some interviews. I went, I liked the places, I loved the people I met and I discovered how near they all are: if I walk out my door at 7 in the morning, I can set foot on a railway platform at Warszawa Centralna or Kraków Główny the very same evening, and still have time for a drink. How was I to resist these temptations? Once more, the language learning virus overcame my weak immune system, aka better judgement.

They say that Polish is a hard nut to crack. Or rather: we say so, the speakers of Western European languages. And it’s not a groundless claim either. Polish nouns have three genders (sexes that is, but without the organs or the fun). So does German, but German has only four cases, whereas Polish has almost twice as many: seven. And while it may not have as many verbal forms as French or Spanish, the catch is that no single verb can be said to be entirely regular – they always have something unpredictable about them. Call it a mystique. Or, if you’re more like me, call it fuckedupness obnoxiousness. Continue reading

“Those reviewers on Amazon are ____________ [fill in the blank]”

Blogger and teacher Larry Davidson from Weston, MA had a close look at the reviews of Babel at amazon.com. And like myself, he didn’t like what he saw. And he went on to do what I could never do: review the reviewers, and without mincing his words either.

I’ll reproduce his first few paragraphs here before sending you off to the man himself – who I’ve never met or spoken to in my life, I should add. But is he a friend? You bet.

So here’s Larry Davidson’s blogpost:

As Tom Lehrer famously said, “the reason most reviews on Amazon are so atrocious is that they were written by the people.”

Actually, that’s not quite what he said. He actually said “the reason most folk songs are so atrocious is that they were written by the people.” But it’s exactly the same idea; there’s no editorial eye on members of the general public who write reviews on Amazon, Google, and Yelp. So it’s not just Amazon, but I’ll use that as my example.

Yesterday I reviewed Babel by Gaston Dorren. My review was positive — enthusiastic, in fact. Now of course opinions differ, and de gustibus non est disputandum, so it doesn’t bother me if you dislike a book I like, or if you like a book I dislike. You can even think Dan Brown is a good writer for all I care. But some things about non-professional reviews do bother me. Let’s use the Amazon reviews of Babel as an instructive example. Half of the reviewers gave 4 or 5 stars, so obviously those people are discerning and thoughtful.😉 What we want to do is look at the reviewers who gave 1–3 stars. Maybe they were discerning and thoughtful too, and all we have is a difference of opinion.

In some cases that was indeed what was going on. Continue reading .

A prize for Babel!

On Saturday 5 October, I was honoured to win the Onze Taal/ANV Language Book Prize 2019. The prize-giving ceremony took place during the biennial conference of Onze Taal, an NGO dedicated to the Dutch language. The award is endowed with 3,000 euros and comes with a certificate and a caricature by well-known cartoon artist Tom Janssen.

The same video with subtitles in Dutch can be seen here.

Ten reasons to study Vietnamese (and 5 to regret it)

Last year, my friend Huyền and I gave a presentation at the Polyglot Conference in Ljubljana titled ’10 Reasons to Study Vietnamese (And 5 to Regret it)’. Since she couldn’t come to Europe at the time, her contribution was pre-recorded.

The whole talk, including the Q&A, has now been published. The response of the audience can’t be heard, making the thing a bit eerie, like a movie without its soundtrack. Anyway, here it is: